Cresswell strode up.
“I saw him come up—he must have entered. He’s nowhere downstairs,” he wavered and scowled. “Have you been in your sitting-room?” And then, not waiting for a reply, he strode to the door.
“But the damned scoundrel wouldn’t dare!”
He deliberately placed his hand in his right-hand hip-pocket and threw open the door.
Mary Cresswell stood frozen. The full horror of the thing burst upon her. Her own silly misapprehension, the infatuation of Alwyn for Zora, her thoughtless—no, vindictive—betrayal of him to something worse than death. She listened for the crack of doom. She heard a bird singing far down in the swamp; she heard the soft raising of a window and the closing of a door. And then—great God in heaven! must she live forever in this agony?—and then, she heard the door bang and Mr. Cresswell’s gruff voice—
“Well, where is he?—he isn’t in there!”
Mary Cresswell felt that something was giving way within. She swayed and would have crashed to the bottom of the staircase if just then she had not seen at the opposite end of the hall, near the back stairs, Zora and Alwyn emerge calmly from a room, carrying a basket full of clothes. Colonel Cresswell stared at them, and Zora instinctively put up her hand and fastened her dress at the throat. The Colonel scowled, for it was all clear to him now.
“Look here,” he angrily opened upon them, “if you niggers want to meet around keep out of this house; hereafter I’ll send the clothes down. By God, if you want to make love go to the swamp!” He stamped down the stairs while an ashy paleness stole beneath the dark-red bronze of Zora’s face.
They walked silently down the road together—the old familiar road. Alwyn was staring moodily ahead.
“We must get married—before Christmas, Zora,” he presently avowed, not looking at her. He felt the basket pause and he glanced up. Her dark eyes were full upon him and he saw something in their depths that brought him to himself and made him realize his blunder.
“Zora!” he stammered, “forgive me! Will you marry me?”
She looked at him calmly with infinite compassion. But her reply was uttered unhesitantly; distinct, direct.
The people of Toomsville started in their beds and listened. A new song was rising on the air: a harsh, low, murmuring croon that shook the village ranged around its old square of dilapadated stores. It was not a song of joy; it was not a song of sorrow; it was not a song at all, perhaps, but a confused whizzing and murmuring, as of a thousand ill-tuned, busy voices. Some of the listeners wondered; but most of the town cried joyfully, “It’s the new cotton-mill!”
John Taylor’s head teemed with new schemes. The mill trust of the North was at last a fact. The small mills had not been able to buy cotton when it was low because Cresswell was cornering it in the name of the Farmers’ League; now that it was high they could not afford to, and many surrendered to the trust.